2420420Mary Lamb — Chapter II.1883Anne Gilchrist


Birth of Charles.—Coleridge.—Domestic Toils and Trials.—Their Tragic Culmination.—Letters to and from Coleridge.

1775-1796.—Æt. 11-32.

On the 10th of February 1775 arrived a new member into the household group in Crown Office Row—Charles, the child of his father's old age, the "weakly but very pretty babe," who was to prove their strong support. And now Mary was no longer a lonely girl. She was just old enough to be trusted to nurse and tend the baby and she became a mother to it. In after life she spoke of the comfort, the wholesome curative influence upon her young troubled mind, which this devotion to Charles in his infancy brought with it. And as he grew older rich was her reward; for he repaid the debt with a love half filial, half fraternal, than which no human tie was ever stronger or more sublimely adequate to the strain of a terrible emergency. As his young mind unfolded he found in her intelligence and love the same genial fostering influences that had cherished his feeble frame into health and strength. It was with his little hand in hers that he first trod the Temple gardens, and spelled out the inscriptions on the sun-dials and on the tombstones in the old burying-ground and wondered, finding only lists of the virtues "where all the naughty people were buried?" Like Mary, his disposition was so different from that of his gay, pleasure-loving parents that they but ill understood "and gave themselves little trouble about him," which also tended to draw brother and sister closer together. There are no other records of Mary's girlhood than such as may be gathered from the story of her brother's early life; of how when he was five and she was fifteen she came near to losing him from small-pox, Aunt Hetty grieving over him," the only thing in the world she loved" as she was wont to say, with a mother's tears. And how, three years later (in 1782), she had to give up his daily companionship and see him, now grown a handsome boy with "crisply curling black hair, clear brown complexion, aquiline, slightly Jewish cast of features, winning smile, and glittering, restless eyes," equipped as a Christ's Hospital boy and, with Aunt Hetty, to

. . . peruse him round and round,
And hardly know him in his yellow coats,
Red leathern belt and gown of russet blue.

Coleridge was already a Blue Coat boy but older and too high above Charles in the school for comradeship then. To Lamb, with home close at hand, it was a happy time; but Coleridge, homeless and friendless in the great city, had no mitigations of the rough Spartan discipline which prevailed; and the weekly whole holidays when, turned adrift in the streets from morn till night, he had nothing but a crust of bread in his pockets and no resource but to beguile the pangs of hunger in summer with hours of bathing in the New River and in winter with furtive hanging round bookstalls wrought permanent harm to his fine-strung organisation. Nor did the gentleness of his disposition, or the brilliancy of his powers, save him from the birch-loving brutalities of old Boyer, who was wont to add an extra stripe "because he was so ugly."

In the Lamb household the domestic outlook grew dark as soon as Mary was grown up, for her father's faculties and her mother's health failed early; and when, in his fifteenth year, Charles left Christ's Hospital it was already needful for him to take up the burthens of a man on his young shoulders; and for Mary not only to make head against sickness, helplessness, old age with its attendant exigencies but to add to the now straitened means by taking in millinery work.

For eleven years, as she has told us, she maintained herself by the needle; from the age of twenty-one to thirty-two, that is. It was not in poor old Aunt Hetty's nature to be helpful either. "She was from morning till night poring over good books and devotional exercises. . . . The only secular employment I remember to have seen her engaged in was the splitting of French beans and dropping them into a basin of fair water," says Elia. Happily, a clerkship in the South Sea House, where his brother already was, enabled Charles to maintain his parents and a better post in the India House was obtained two years afterwards. Nor were there wanting snatches of pleasant holiday sometimes shared by Mary. Of one, a visit to the sea, there is a beautiful reminiscence in The Old Margate Hoy, written more than thirty years afterwards. "It was our first sea-side experiment," he says, "and many circumstances combined to make it the most agreeable holiday of my life. We had neither of us seen the sea" (he was fifteen and Mary twenty-six), "and we had never been from home so long together in company." The disappointment they both felt at the first sight of the sea he explains with one of his subtle and profound suggestions. "Is it not" . . . says he, "that we had expected to behold (absurdly I grant, but by the law of imagination inevitably) not a definite object compassable by the eye, but all the sea at once, the commensurate antagonist of the earth? Whereas the eye can but take in a 'slip of salt water.'" The whole passage is one of Elia's finest.

Then Coleridge too, who had remained two years longer at Christ's Hospital than Lamb and after he went up to Cambridge in 1791 continued to pay frequent visits to London, spent many a glorious evening, not only those memorable ones with Charles in the parlour of the "Salutation and Cat," but in his home; and was not slow to discover Mary's fine qualities and to take her into his brotherly heart as a little poem, written so early as 1794, to cheer his friend during a serious illness of hers testifies:—

Cheerily, dear Charles!
Thou thy best friend shalt cherish many a year
Such warm presages feel I of high hope.
For not uninterested the dear maid
I've viewed—her soul affectionate yet wise,
Her polished wit as mild as lambent glories
That play around a sainted infant's head.

The year 1795 witnessed changes for all. Thefather, now wholly in his dotage, was pensioned off by Mr. Salt and the family had to exchange their old home in the Temple for straitened lodgings in Little Queen Street, Holborn (the site of which and of the adjoining houses is now occupied by Trinity Church). Coleridge, too, had left Cambridge and was at Bristol, drawn thither by his newly formed friendship with Southey, lecturing, writing, dreaming of his ideal Pantisocracy on the banks of the Susquehannah and love-making. The love-making ended in marriage the autumn of that same year. Meanwhile Lamb, too, was first tasting the joys and sorrows of love. Alice W—— lingers but as a shadow in the records of his life: the passion, however, was real enough and took deep hold of him, conspiring with the cares and trials of home life unrelieved now by the solace of Coleridge's society to give a fatal stimulus to the germs of brain-disease, which were part of the family heritage and for six weeks he was in a mad-house. "In your absence," he tells his friend afterwards, "the tide of melancholy rushed in, and did its worst mischief by overwhelming my reason." Who can doubt the memory of this attack strengthened the bond of sympathy between Mary and himself and gave him a fellow-feeling for her no amount of affection alone could have realised? As in her case, too, the disorder took the form of a great heightening and intensifying of the imaginative faculty. "I look back on it, at times," wrote he after his recovery, "with a gloomy kind of envy; for while it lasted I had many many hours of pure happiness. Dream not, Coleridge, of having tasted all the grandeur and wildness of fancy, till you have gone mad. . . . The sonnet I send you has small merit as poetry, but you will be curious to read it when I tell you it was written in my prison-house in one of my ucid intervals:—


If from my lips some angry accents fell,
Peevish complaint, or harsh reproof unkind,
'Twas but the error of a sickly mind
And troubled thoughts, clouding the purer well,
And waters clear of Reason; and for me
Let this my verse the poor atonement be
My verse, which thou to praise wert e'er inclined
Too highly, and with a partial eye to see
No blemish. Thou to me didst ever show
Kindest affection; and would oft-times lend
An ear to the desponding love-sick lay,
Weeping my sorrows with me, who repay
But ill the mighty debt of love I owe,
Mary, to thee, my sister and my friend.

No sooner was Charles restored to himself than the elder brother John met with a serious accident; and though whilst in health he had carried himself and his earnings to more comfortable quarters, he did not now fail to return and be nursed with anxious solicitude by his brother and sister. This was the last ounce. Mary, worn out with years of nightly as well as daily attendance upon her mother who was now wholly deprived of the use of her limbs, and harassed by a close application to needlework to help her in which she had been obliged to take a young apprentice, was at last strained beyond the utmost pitch of physical endurance, "worn down to a state of extreme nervous misery." About the middle of September, she being then thirty-two years old, her family observed some symptoms of insanity in her which had so much increased by the 21st that her brother early in the morning went to Dr. Pitcairn who unhappily was out. On the afternoon of that day, seized with a sudden attack of frenzy, she snatched a knife from the table and pursued the young apprentice round the room when her mother interposing received a fatal stab and died instantly. Mary was totally unconscious of what she had done, Aunt Hetty fainted with terror, the father was too feeble in mind for any but a confused and transient impression; it was Charles alone who confronted all the anguish and horror of the scene. With the stern brevity of deep emotion he wrote to Coleridge five days afterwards:—

"My poor dear, dearest sister, in a fit of insanity, has been the death of her own mother. I was at hand only time enough to snatch the knife out of her grasp. She is at present in a mad-house, from whence I fear she must be moved to a hospital. God has preserved to me my senses; I eat, aud drink, and sleep, and have my judgment, I believe, very sound. My poor father was slightly wounded, and I am left to take care of him and my aunt. Mr. Norris of the Blue Coat School has been very kind to us, and we have no other friend; but, thank God, I am very calm and composed, and able to do the best that remains to do. Write as religious a letter as possible, but no mention of what is gone and done with. With me 'the former things are passed away,' and I have something more to do than to feel. God Almighty have us all in His keeping! Mention nothing of poetry. I have destroyed every vestige of past vanities of that kind. . . . Your own judgment will convince you not to take any notice of this yet to your dear wife. You look after your family; I have my reason and strength left to take care of mine. I charge you, don't think of coming to see me. Write. I will not see you if you come. God Almighty love you and all of us!"

Coleridge responded to this appeal for sympathy and comfort by the following,—the only letter of his to Lamb which has been preserved:—

"Your letter, my friend, struck me with a mighty horror. It rushed upon me and stupified my feelings. You bid me write you a religious letter; I am not a man who would attempt to insult the greatness of your anguish by any other consolation. Heaven knows that in the easiest fortunes there is much dissatisfaction and weariness of spirit; much that calls for the exercise of patience and resignation; but in storms like these that shake the dwelling and make the heart tremble, there is no middle way between despair and the yielding up of the whole spirit to the guidance of faith. And surely it is a matter of joy that your faith in Jesus has been preserved; the Comforter that should relieve you is not far from you. But as you are a Christian, in the name of that Saviour who was filled with bitterness and made drunken with wormwood, I conjure you to have recourse in frequent prayer to 'his God and your God,' the God of mercies and Father of all comfort. Your poor father is, I hope, almost senseless of the calamity; the unconscious instrument of Divine Providence knows it not, and your mother is in Heaven. It is sweet to be roused from a frightful dream by the song of birds, and the gladsome rays of the morning. Ah, how infinitely more sweet to be awakened from the blackness and amazement of a sudden horror by the glories of God manifest, and the hallelujahs of angels.

"As to what regards yourself, I approve altogether of your abandoning what you justly call vanities. I look upon you as a man called by sorrow and anguish and a strange desolation of hopes into quietness, and a soul set apart and made peculiar to God; we cannot arrive at any portion of heavenly bliss without, in some measure, imitating Christ. And they arrive at the largest inheritance who imitate the most difficult parts of his character, and, bowed down and crushed under foot, cry, in fulness of faith, 'Father, Thy will be done.'

"I wish above measure to have vou for a little while here; no visitants shall blow on the nakedness of your feelings; you shall be quiet, that your spirit may be healed. I see no possible objection, unless your father's helplessness prevent you, and unless you are necessary to him. If this be not the case, I charge you write me that you will come.

"I charge you, my dearest friend, not to dare to encourage gloom or despair; you are a temporary sharer in human miseries, that you may be an eternal partaker of the Divine nature. I charge you, if by any means it be possible, come to me."

How the storm was weathered, with what mingled fortitude and sweetness Lamb sustained the wrecked household and rescued his sister, when reason returned, from the living death of perpetual confinement in a mad-house must be read in the answer to Coleridge:—

"Your letter was an inestimable treasure to me. It will be a comfort to you, I know, to know that our prospects are somewhat brighter. My poor dear, dearest sister, the unhappy and unconscious instrument of the Almighty's judgment on our house, is restored to her senses; to a dreadful sense and recollection of what has passed, awful to her mind, and impressive (as it must be to the end of life), but tempered with religious resignation and the reasonings of a sound judgment, which in this early stage knows how to distinguish between a deed committed in a transient fit of frenzy and the terrible guilt of a mother's murder. I have seen her. I found her this morning, calm and serene; far, very far from an indecent forgetful serenity. She has a most affectionate and tender concern for what has happened. Indeed, from the beginning—frightful and hopeless as her disorder seemed—I had confidence enough in her strength of mind and religious principle, to look forward to a time when even she might recover tranquillity. God be praised, Coleridge! wonderful as it is to tell, I have never once been otherwise than collected and calm; even on the dreadful day, and in the midst of the terrible scene, I preserved a tranquillity which bystanders may have construed into indifference; a tranquillity not of despair. Is it folly or sin in me to say that it was a religious principle that most supported me? I allow much to other favourable circumstances. I felt that I had something else to do than to regret. On that first evening my aunt was lying insensible—to all appearance like one dying; my father, with his poor forehead plaistered over from a wound he had received from a daughter, dearly loved by him and who loved him no less dearly; my mother a dead and murdered corpse in the next room; yet was I wonderfully supported. I closed not my eyes in sleep that night, but lay without terrors and without despair. I have lost no sleep since. I had been long used not to rest in things of sense; had endeavoured after a comprehension of mind unsatisfied with the 'ignorant present time,' and this kept me up. I had the whole weight of the family thrown on me; for my brother, little disposed (I speak not without tenderness for him) at any time to take care of old age and infirmities, had now, with his bad leg, an exemption from such duties, and I was left alone. One little incident may serve to make you understand my way of managing my mind. Within a day or two after the fatal one, we dressed for dinner a tongue, which we had had salted for some weeks in the house. As I sat down a feeling like remorse struck me: this tongue poor Mary got for me, and can I partake of it now when she is far away? A thought occurred and relieved me: if I give in to this way of feeling, there is not a chair, a room, an object in our rooms that will not awaken the keenest griefs. I must rise above such weaknesses. I hope this was not want of true feeling. I did not let this carry me, though, too far. On the very second day (I date from the day of horrors) as is usual in such cases there were a matter of twenty people, I do think, supping in our room; they prevailed on me to eat with them (for to eat I never refused). They were all making merry in the room! Some had come from friendship, some from busy curiosity and some from interest. I was going to partake with them when my recollection came that my poor dead mother was lying in the next room—the very next room; a mother who, through life, wished nothing but her children's welfare. Indignation, the rage of grief, something like remorse, rushed upon my mind. In an agony of emotion I found my way mechanically to the adjoining room and fell on my knees by the side of her coffin, asking forgiveness of Heaven and sometimes of her for forgetting her so soon. Tranquillity returned and it was the only violent emotion that mastered me. I think it did me good.

"I mention these things because I hate concealment and love to give a faithful journal of what passes within me. Our friends have been very good. Sam Le Grice [an old schoolfellow well known to the readers of Lamb], who was then in town, was with me the first three or four days and was as a brother to me; gave up every hour of his time, to the very hurting of his health and spirits, in constant attendance and humouring my poor father, talked with him, read to him, played at cribbage with him (for so short is the old man's recollection that he was playing at cards as though nothing had happened while the coroner's inquest was sitting over the way!). Samuel wept tenderly when he went away, for his mother wrote him a very severe letter on his loitering so long in town and he was forced to go. Mr. Norris of Christ's Hospital has been as a father to me; Mrs. Norris as a mother; though we had few claims on them. A gentleman, brother to my godmother, from whom we never had right or reason to expect any such assistance, sent my father twenty pounds; and to crown all these God's blessings to our family at such a time, an old lady, a cousin of my father and aunt, a gentlewoman of fortune, is to take my aunt and make her comfortable for the short remainder of her days. My aunt is recovered and as well as ever and highly pleased at the thought of going, and has generously given up the interest of her little money (which was formerly paid my father for her board) wholly and solely to my sister's use. Reckoning this we have, Daddy and I, for our two selves and an old maid-servant to look after him when I am out which will be necessary, £170 (or £180 rather) a year, out of which we can spare £50 or £60, at least, for Mary while she stays at Islington where she must and shall stay during her father's life, for his and her comfort. I know John will make speeches about it, but she shall not go into an hospital. The good lady of the mad-house and her daughter, an elegant, sweet-behaved young lady, love her and are taken with her amazingly; and I know, from her own mouth, she loves them and longs to be with them as much. Poor thing, they say she was but the other morning saying she knew she must go to Bethlem for life; that one of her brothers would have it so, but the other would wish it not, but be obliged to go with the stream; that she had often, as she passed Bethlem, thought it likely 'Here it may be my fate to end my days,' conscious of a certain flightiness in her poor head often-times and mindful of more than one severe illness of that nature before. A legacy of £100 which my father will have at Christmas and this £20 I mentioned before with what is in the house will much more than set us clear. If my father, an old servant-maid and 1 can't live and live comfortably on £130 or £120 a year, we ought to burn by slow fires, and I almost would that Mary might not go into an hospital. Let me not leave one unfavourable impression on your mind respecting my brother. Since this has happened he has been very kind and brotherly; but I fear for his mind: he has taken his ease in the world and is not fit to struggle with difficulties, nor has he much accustomed himself to throw himself into their way and I know his language is already, 'Charles you must take care of yourself, you must not abridge yourself of a single pleasure you have been used to,' &c. &c., and in that style of talking. But you, a necessarian, can respect a difference of mind and love what is amiable in a character not perfect. He has been very good but I fear for his mind. Thank God I can unconnect myself with him and shall manage all my father's moneys in future myself if I take charge of Daddy, which poor John has not even hinted a wish at any future time even to share with me. The lady at this mad-house assures me that I may dismiss immediately both doctor and apothecary, retaining occasionally a composing draught or so for a while; and there is a less expensive establishment in her house, where ahe will only not have a room and nurse to herself for £50 or guineas a year—the outside would be £60. You know by economy how much more even I shall be able to spare for her comforts. She will, I fancy, if she stays, make one of the family rather than of the patients; and the old and young ladies I like exceedingly and she loves them dearly; and they, as the saying is, take to her very extraordinarily if it is extraordinary that people who see my sister should love her. Of all the people I ever saw in the world, my poor sister was most and thoroughly devoid of the least tincture of selfishness. I will enlarge upon her qualities, poor dear, dearest soul, in a future letter for my own comfort, for I understand her thoroughly; and, if I mistake not, in the most trying situation that a human being can be found in, she will be found (I speak not with sufficient humility, I fear), but humanly and foolishly speaking, she will be found, I trust, uniformly great and amiable. . . ."

The depth and tenderness of Mary's but half requited love for her mother and the long years of daily and nightly devotion to her which had borne witness to it and been the immediate cause of the catastrophe, took the sting oat of her grief and gave her an unfaltering sense of innocence. They even shed round her a peaceful atmosphere which veiled from her mind's eye the dread scene in all its naked horror, as it would seem from Lamb's next letter:—

"Mary continues serene and cheerful. I have not by me a little letter she wrote to me; for though I see her almost every day yet we delight to write to one another, for we can scarce see each other but in company with some of the people of the house. I have not the letter by me but will quote from memory what she wrote in it: 'I have no bad, terrifying dreams. At midnight, when I happen to awake, the nurse sleeping by the side of me, with the noise of the poor mad people around me, I have no fear. The spirit of my mother seems to descend and smile upon me and bid me live to enjoy the life and reason which the Almighty has given me. I shall see her again in heaven; she will then understand me better. My grandmother, too, will understand me better, and will then say no more as she used to do, 'Polly, what are those poor, crazy, moythered brains of yours thinking of always?'"

And again, in another of her little letters, not itself preserved, but which Charles translated "almost literally," he tells us, into verse, she said:—

Thou and I, dear friend,
With filial recognition sweet, shall know
One day the face of our dear mother in heaven;
And her remembered looks of love shall greet
With answering looks of love, her placid smiles
Meet with a smile as placid, and her hand
With drops of fondness wet, nor fear repulse.

And after speaking, in words already quoted, of how his mother "had never understood Mary right," Lamb continues:—

"Every act of duty and of love she could pay, every kindness (and I speak true when I say to the hurting of her health, and most probably in great part to the derangement of her senses), through a long course of infirmities and sickness, she could show her she ever did." "I will, some day as I promised, enlarge to you upon my sister's excellences; 'twill seem like exaggeration, but I will do it."

Although Mary's recovery had been rapid, to be permitted to return home was, for the present, out of the question; so cheered by constant intercourse with Charles she set herself, with characteristic sweetness, to make the best of life in a private lunatic asylum. "I have satisfaction," Charles tells his unfailing sympathiser Coleridge, "in being able to bid you rejoice with me in my sister's continued reason and composedness of mind. Let us both be thankful for it. I continue to visit her very frequently and the people of the house are vastly indulgent to her. She is likely to be as comfortably situated in all respects as those who pay twice or thrice the sum. They love her and she loves them and makes herself very useful to them. Benevolence sets out on her journey with a good heart and puts a good face on it, but is apt to limp and grow feeble unless she calls in the aid of self-interest by way of crutch. In Mary's case, as far as respects those she is with, 'tis well that these principles are so likely to co-operate. I am rather at a loss sometimes for books for her, our reading is somewhat confined and we have nearly exhausted our London library. She has her hands too full of work to read much, but a little she must read for reading was her daily bread."

So wore away the remaining months of this dark year. Perhaps they were loneliest and saddest for Charles. There was no one now to share with him the care of his old father; and second childhood draws unsparingly on the debt of filial affection and gratitude. Cheerfully and ungrudgingly did he pay it. His chief solace was the correspondence with Coleridge; and, as his spirits recovered their tone, the mutual discussion of the poems which the two friends were about to publish conjointly with some of Charles Lloyd's, was resumed. The little volume was to be issued by Cottle of Bristol, early in the coming year, 1797; and Lamb was desirous to seize the occasion of giving his sister an unlooked-for pleasure and of consecrating his verses by a renouncement and a dedication.

"I have a dedication in my head," he writes, "for my few things, which I want to know if you approve of and can insert. I mean to inscribe them to my sister. It will be unexpected, and it will give her pleasure; or do you think it will look whimsical at all? As I have not spoken to her about it, I can easily reject the idea. But there is a monotony in the affections which people living together, or, as we do now, very frequently seeing each other, are apt to get into; a sort of indifference in the expression of kindness for each other, which demands that we should sometimes call to our aid the trickery of surprise. The title page to stand thus:—



This beauty, in the blossom of my youth,
When my first fire knew no adulterate incense,
Nor I no way to flatter but my fondness,
In the best language my true tongue could tell me,
And all the broken sighs my sick heart lend me,
I sued and served. Long did I love this lady.—Massinger.

The Dedication:—



"This is the pomp and paraphernalia of parting, with which I take my leave of a passion which has reigned so royally, so long, within me. Thus, with its trappings of laureateship, I fling it off, pleased and satisfied with myself that the weakness troubles me no longer. I am wedded, Coleridge, to the fortunes of my sister and my poor old father. Oh, my friend! I think, sometimes, could I recall the days that are past, which among them should I choose? Not those merrier days, not the pleasant days of hope, not those wanderings with a fair-haired maid which I have so often and so feelingly regretted, but the days, Coleridge, of a mother's fondness for her school-boy. What would I give to call her back to earth for one day!—on my knees to ask her pardon for all those little asperities of temper which, from time to time, have given her gentle spirit pain!—and the day, my friend, I trust will come. There will be 'time enough' for kind offices of love, if Heaven's 'eternal year' be ours. Hereafter, her meek spirit shall not reproach me. Oh! my friend, cultivate the filial feelings! and let no man think himself released from the kind 'charities' of relationship: these shall give him peace at the last; these are the best foundation for every species of benevolence. I rejoice to hear by certain channels, that you, my friend, are reconciled with all your relations. 'Tis the most kindly and natural species of love, and we have all the associated train of early feelings to secure its strength and perpetuity"